There’s no need to fear the confessional, say local priests
By Kevin Birnbaum
How long has it been since your last confession? Perhaps quite a long time, if you’re like many Catholics.
Surveys suggest three out of four American Catholics avail themselves of the sacrament of penance and reconciliation less than once a year, or not at all.
So why has it been so long?
Maybe you had a bad experience with an insensitive priest years ago. Maybe you figured the whole practice went out with Vatican II. Maybe it strikes you as outdated, or superstitious, or unnecessary. Maybe you’re embarrassed or ashamed, or you can’t believe God could forgive you. Maybe your pastor seldom talks about the sacrament and rarely offers it. Maybe you just got out of the habit and drifted away. Maybe you can’t even remember what to say.
Whatever the reason, priests in the Archdiocese of Seattle say there’s no need to fear, that regular confession is an integral part of the spiritual life, and that they’re eager to welcome those who have been away back to this sacrament of healing and forgiveness.
Grace triumphant over guilt
The sacrament of penance and reconciliation was established by Jesus as an extension of his own healing ministry, said Father Frank Schuster, pastor of Blessed Teresa of Calcutta Parish in Woodinville.
“We Catholics have sometimes been given a bad reputation about stressing guilt over grace,” he said. “When it comes to the sacrament of reconciliation, the emphasis ought to be grace is triumphant over guilt. What needs to be better understood is that Christ offers us a way to be liberated from our sins through the sacrament of reconciliation. What I find inspiring about this ministry is the look of happiness on people’s faces after they have been forgiven of sins that have weighed them down for years.”
Father Jim Northrop, pastor of St. Brendan Parish in Bothell, said he once heard a woman refer to the confessional as “the penalty box,” but that’s precisely the opposite of the truth. A person should leave the sacrament of reconciliation with “a renewed sense of gratitude for God’s mercy and the ability to start over again, that you’re not defined by your past and God’s mercies are new every morning,” he said.
The sacrament is about healing and strengthening our relationship with God, said Father Kurt Nagel, pastor of Holy Family Parish in Kirkland. Just as in human relationships, like marriage, “there are some things you can do that will end the relationship, and there are some things that will just hurt the relationship,” he said.
“No one’s going to file for divorce because you didn’t take out the garbage when you said you were going to … But there are also some things that break off the relationship — you’ve turned your back on the person by doing this. …
“A mortal sin is a sin that you knowingly commit — you know that it’s going to be something that ends this relationship or at least breaks it off, but you do it anyway,” he said. “That doesn’t mean it can’t be repaired, because God’s a sucker in the relationship — he’s always going to take you back. But you have to come back.”
A number of fears and concerns conspire to keep people away from the sacrament of reconciliation. Some older Catholics have bad memories of harsh words from priests in the confessional, but such experiences are very rare these days, said Dominican Father Raphael Mary Salzillo, former chaplain at the University of Washington Newman Center.
“The priest is really a minister of God’s mercy because that’s what Christ was. He didn’t come to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through him,” he said. “There can’t be any harshness in the sacrament — it’s just foreign to the ministry of Christ to condemn people.”
And no matter how bad your sins, don’t worry that the priest will be shocked by your confession, said Father Nagel.
“There’s no sexual sin, there’s no act of violence, there’s no murder, there’s no rape, there’s nothing you can say that I have not heard and forgiven,” he said. “So you’re not going to surprise me … that’s just not going to happen.”
The priests said they never look down on anyone for the sins they’ve confessed. Rather, they admire those honest and brave enough to admit their sins and ask God’s forgiveness.
“Confession indisputably is a hard thing for all of us,” said Father Salzillo, but if you are truly sorry for the sins you confess, you can be assured of God’s forgiveness.
Sometimes people who haven’t been to confession in a long time are worried that they’ll look foolish because they can’t remember what to say in the confessional.
In that case, said Father Nagel, “Just say, ‘Father, it’s been a long time — tell me what to do.’ And I’ll take it from there. That’s normal, it’s not a big deal, and it’s easy.”
Visit your app store to download “Confession: A Roman Catholic App,” which guides you through a personalized examination of conscience on your smartphone. Note: This app is not a substitute for the sacrament of reconciliation.
A brief examination of conscience based on the Ten Commandments
I am the Lord your God: You shall not have strange Gods before me. Have I treated people, events or things as more important than God?
You shall not take the name of the Lord your God in vain. Have my words, actively or passively, put down God, the church or people?
Remember to keep holy the Lord’s day. Do I go to Mass every Sunday (or Saturday vigil) and on holy days of obligation (Jan. 1, the Ascension, Aug. 15, Nov. 1, Dec. 8, Dec. 25)? Do I avoid, when possible, work that impedes worship to God, joy for the Lord’s day and proper relaxation of mind and body? Do I look for ways to spend time with family or in service on Sunday?
Honor your father and your mother. Do I show my parents due respect? Do I seek to maintain good communication with my parents where possible? Do I criticize them for lacking skills I think they should have?
You shall not kill. Have I harmed another through physical, verbal or emotional means, including gossip or manipulation of any kind?
You shall not commit adultery. Have I respected the physical and sexual dignity of others and of myself?
You shall not steal. Have I taken or wasted time or resources that belonged to another?
You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor. Have I gossiped, told lies or embellished stories at the expense of another?
You shall not covet your neighbor’s spouse. Have I honored my spouse with my full affection and exclusive love?
You shall not covet your neighbor’s goods. Am I content with my own means and needs, or do I compare myself to others unnecessarily?
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